Gaslighting Parents and Emotional Manipulation

Making children feel guilty, underestimating them, criticizing them for their likes and dislikes, isolating them... Many parents carry out gaslighting. However, victims often don't realize it until they reach adulthood.
Gaslighting Parents and Emotional Manipulation
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

A form of psychological abuse is often linked to relationships. It’s the kind of mistreatment where one person tries to alter how the other feels by making them believe that what they see, feel, or believe is false. However, this abuse also happens with parents and children. In fact, gaslighting parents seek to emotionally wear down their children.

The term gaslighting refers to a very insidious and deliberate kind of manipulation that results in the victim questioning almost everything. In fact, gradually, their self-esteem and identity become completely fractured. This is due to the actions of an abuser who seeks, above all else, to have control and to project their frustrations onto the victim.

While this kind of relationship has traditionally been linked to romantic partnerships, it seems that another scenario often tends to go unnoticed. In fact, people become aware that they’ve suffered this kind of abuse much later in life.

Suffering gaslighting as a child has really negative long-term effects. After all, a child doesn’t realize that they’re being manipulated, let alone why the love of their mother or father is so conditional.

A sad boy, who maybe has gaslighting parents.

Gaslighting parents

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote in his book Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy about a shocking case concerning a gaslighting parent. This patient was a woman who had come to therapy because she couldn’t come to terms with the loss of her daughter more than ten years ago. However, during therapy, a chilling fact emerged.

It appeared that the woman had poured all her anger and disappointment onto her youngest son. She even blamed him for his sister’s death and suggested he should’ve died instead. Yes, the woman was suffering greatly from unresolved trauma. However, almost unknowingly, she had mistreated her child, who’d subsequently have to face the enormous challenge of overcoming it.

Not only psychology has shown an interest in this particular subject. In fact, it’s also considered a sociological phenomenon, as noted in a study conducted by Dr. Paige Sweet of Harvard University. In fact, according to the sociological approach, gaslighting occurs due to power differences. These could be inequalities in relationships concerning gender, status, or parent-child ties.

What are gaslighting parents like?

Gaslighting parents give their children frequent “inoculations” of guilt. Then, they add small doses to almost any situation to increase the degree of control they have over their children. They also:

  • Involve children in situations they aren’t responsible for. For instance, if things aren’t going well with their partner, they’ll blame their child.
  • Have a favorite child, known as the golden or trophy child. They gaslight the other sibling, who’s made to believe they’re worth less than the favored child. Or they tell this sibling that they’re badly behaved and aren’t worthy of any affection.
  • Tell lies. For example, the mother might say she’s had a bad day because the child upset her that morning.
  • Undervalue or ignore their child’s talent or worth.
  • Frequently attack any passion or interest their child has.
  • Socially isolate their child. This is because they don’t want the child to become independent to keep them under their control.

Gaslighting parents, consequences of mental abuse

As we mentioned above, many people aren’t aware that they’ve suffered any form of psychological abuse until they reach adulthood. In fact, it’s quite common for some of these distorted schemas instilled by their parents to form an integral part of their personality.

  • One example is not trusting their own judgments. If they’ve been made to perceive what they think, feel, and believe is wrong, they find it hard to make decisions of their own.
  • They generally develop personal insecurity. Furthermore, they find it hard to trust others in adulthood.
  • Frequently, they have low self-esteem and identity problems.
  • They get used to putting their own needs on the back burner.
  • They might tend to internalize emotions by silencing them or neglecting them. This means they might have a tendency to somatize their emotions.

How to recover from a childhood of gaslighting

Those who have been victims of this type of abuse rarely come out unscathed. However, some might manage it by focusing all their pain on a distraction like work, love, or sports, etc.

Nevertheless, the wounds are still there. In fact, they usually manifest themselves in the form of post-traumatic stress. Indeed, it’s important to remember that these childhood experiences actually constitute a form of psychological abuse. Therefore, expert psychological help is always advisable.

The individual needs to embark on a journey of healing where they can rebuild their self-esteem and identity. They also need to purge themselves of the guilt that their parents projected onto them for so long. Furthermore, they have to free themselves from the perspective instilled into them by their manipulator that they’re worthless and unimportant. This process will take time.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Sweet PL. The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review. 2019;84(5):851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843
  •  Yalom, I. (2012). Love’s Executioner & Other Takes of Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.